Asbestos still not restricted by UN list

More toxic chemicals have been added to the UN's restricted list, but chrysotile asbestos has again been excluded after its listing was blocked by the substance's main exporting countries.

Of the 22 chemicals put forward, the UN has agreed to restrict 14, including pesticides and lead additive for petrol under the Rotterdam Convention. These hazardous chemicals have poisoned and killed thousands of people over the past decade through accidents, misuse and inadequate controls.

Under the treaty, the listed substances can only be exported from one country to another with the prior permission of the importing state’s government.

All of the substances put forward are linked with cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems, according to the UN. However, Canada and Russia have led the protest against chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos which is already banned by many countries, from being added to the list.

Director of the WWF’s Global Toxics Programme, Clifton Curtis, was appalled at their actions, despite the clear scientific evidence showing that the substance was highly carcinogenic.

“Objections to listing chrysotile asbestos are embarrassingly self-interested, protecting domestic exporters that sell this dangerous chemical abroad,” Mr Curtis said. “Chrysotile unequivocally meets the Rotterdam Convention’s requirements, and those governments opposing its listing blatantly disregarded the treaty obligations.”

He added that the failure to list this asbestos risked serious harm by sending out a signal to other countries that the Convention’s requirements did not need to be taken seriously by governments.

Despite the controversy surrounding the 2004 agreement, executive director for the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP), Klaus Toepfer, said those benefiting from the new listing would range from subsistence farming to nursing mothers to wildlife.

“The Rotterdam Convention will provide a first line of defence for human health and the environment against the potential dangers of hazardous chemicals and pesticides,” Mr Toepfer stated.

Around 70,000 chemicals are currently available on the market, and about 1,500 new ones emerge every year, which can pose a challenge to governments attempting to monitor and manage these potentially harmful substances.

Moreover, many chemicals, especially pesticides, that have been banned or severely restricted in industrialised countries are still marketed and used in developing countries.

Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, said that chemicals were a necessary to meeting increasing food demands for the 800 million hungry people in the world and controlling disasters such as the recent locust plague in West Africa.

However, he added that it was vital to reduce the effects of toxic substances on people and the environment, and more research was needed to develop better non-chemical pest controls.

By Jane Kettle

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